Delta “enhancements” keep updates legal, but immoral

This press release is an update to our January 19, 2018 release, “Delta Air Lines’ planned service animal policy strives to balance safety with human rights concerns, leaves room for improvement“. Members of the media may also understand the basic discrimination issue by reading the February 28th, 2018 article “Potential PR nightmare: how airlines choose to discriminate“.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, February 22, 2018—

Delta planned to require that all service animal users provide 48-hour notice, in clear violation of 14 CFR §382.27 (we told them and DOT). On Feb. 22nd, they announced “enhancements” to their plan that simply keep the policy legal, but will continue to unethically segregate those with mental health disabilities from others.

The update will still increase the burdens on the most marginalized of those with disabilities in this context. The focus of civil rights policy should not be to attack the bad actors, but to protect the people most easily cast aside.

Last week, our Director of Government Relations wrote an article taking the current treatment of psychiatric service dog users and placing it in the context of civil rights. We are publishing this article here because it is especially germane today, given the continuing insistence of DOT and airlines that it’s okay to treat people with mental health disabilities more harshly than others protected by disability rights laws.


Flying with a disability: More barriers for the marginalized?

by Bradley W. Morris, MA, CPhil

Thank goodness civil rights aren’t in the hands of the mob. But even niche experts—like yours truly—have a ways to go when it comes to thinking of disability rights as civil rights.

(Black and white photo) Veronica smiles in a DC Metro subway station underground, holding Hestia, a small white dog with black patches

Dr. Veronica Morris shows a service dog doesn’t have to fit preconceptions

My colleague and I took a train to our nation’s capital last week and met with some of our contacts at the Department of Transportation (DOT). These officials are responsible for creating and enforcing service animal regulations in the flying context. They’re great folks, but a hypothetical question from one of them caught me off guard. Paraphrased, it was:

If most of the service animal problems happened to stem from people (claiming to be) of a certain disability type, wouldn’t it be okay to put up more barriers for people with that kind of disability?

Keep in mind that we were talking about service dogs trained for disability-helping work or tasks and for behaving in public. With service dogs, the differences among a psychiatric service dog, a guide dog, and a hearing alert dog are in the type of disability helped, not the training level or behavior expectations under the law.

Contrast this with typically untrained emotional support animals (ESAs)—also there for a disability, but unaccustomed to stressful, pets-prohibited places. More than service dogs, it is a few ESAs and their handlers whose clickbait-news antics inflame the public consciousness.

DOT regulations encourage airlines to lump psychiatric service dogs with ESAs and put up sometimes-prohibitive barriers to their users’ travel. No other disability type faces these barriers, and better balances of safety and disability rights are on offer (with broad expert support).

So there I was, being asked whether it was okay to discriminate against people with mental health disabilities if that’s the category with a higher number of reported issues.

My co-volunteer and I gave a decent response, but it didn’t even occur to me to respectfully point out the basic failure in the question. That DOT office writes and enforces civil rights laws. This otherwise reasonable person was asking me whether it was okay for those laws to discriminate against a marginalized group if complaint statistics said the group causes somewhat more problems than others.

Parallels can be found in asking whether “stop and frisk” policing is okay just for black folks if they’re arrested at higher rates. Or we might wonder whether the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA’s) “random searches” should always be performed on people of apparent Middle Eastern descent because we (wrongly) see them as the only source of terrorism.

The mob may approve of these tactics, but civil rights law exists to protect those the mob would unduly harm. It does not exist to lob further harm at marginalized groups by institutionalizing majority prejudice—through a hierarchy of disability or otherwise.

Do not mistake my message.

(black and white photo) Brad, a bearded man in a wool sweater, looks back over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow as he sits in his power wheelchair unable to go down the aisle on an Amtrak train

Brad Morris hits an access barrier on Amtrak—aisles too narrow for wheelchairs

I realize I know what it’s like to be a person with a disability, not a person of color. The complex histories of cruel dehumanization based on race and mental illness both come together and diverge in powerful ways. It would be foolish to claim the nuanced relationship between race and crime statistics in the United States is exactly the same as between mental health disabilities and airline complaint numbers.

What I point out is that in spite of the differing histories of discrimination and privilege, there are similarities in the blameworthy justification for separating a historically marginalized group from the whole. If the authorities were justified in limiting anyone’s freedoms for everyone’s safety, we must not pre-judge all or only members of a protected class—whether skin color or disability type—as guilty until proven innocent.

Had I thought to convey these things in my DOT meeting, I would be content to have ended the meeting with some aspirational reflection. In my hindsight fantasy, I would have earnestly said that studying Dr. King inspires my advocacy and I hope he was right about the long arc of morality bending toward justice. We each shape that arc for better or worse in our own imperfect time.

We would occupy higher moral ground and have more leverage, were we to recognize and minimize the toxic prejudice we all harbor toward people of marginalized groups. Whether it fits our civil rights preconceptions or not, these groups include people with mental health disabilities. It should no less include those who are striving for independence and inclusion through dogs saving lives.

The mob can catch on later.